Ten years ago, there weren't a ton of electric cars roaming around. Sure, you'd see the Tesla Model S once in while. Perhaps the 1st-gen Nissan LEAF was the most prominent model on American roads. Ah, then there was the occasional Mitsubishi i-MiEV, which looked more like an amusement park transporter than a car. Now pretty much every major automaker is on the move towards electrification.
The push toward EVs is huge. Global sales of electric cars will continue their meteoric rise in 2023 after a record year in 2022. They're on their way to a whopping 20% of market share in a world where ithe internal combustion engine has been king for well over a century. It's starting to put the squeeze on the oil industry, and that's no small feat. The feds are pushing for it and millions of people are switching over to electric whether by desire or necessity. But a decade ago, there were two alternative fuels warring over who would be up-and-coming, and the other one was hydrogen. Today, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) have been painfully overshadowed by their EV counterparts, but that doesn't mean EVs don't have their fair share of issues.
What's the Ugly Side of EVs?
A few of our neighbors own EVs, and they swear by them. But they do talk about range anxiety from time to time, especially in the cold Chicago winters. Range anxiety is real, and it's where EV owners are worried they'll be left stranded their EV goes belly up due to lack of power. No gas station will fix that, and once your'e out, you're out. Tesla's recovery trucks are gas powered. That should tell you something. EVs lose as much as 30 percent of their range during cold weather, and that's exacerbated by running heated seats, windshield wipers, defrosters, you name it. As EV range numbers increase, range anxiety is reduced.
The nation's charging infrastructure might continues to be the biggest challenge in the adoption of EVs. Level 2 home-based charging stations are great, but not everyone has the space to install one. What's more, the public charging network still needs way more charging stations. Currently, Tesla has the biggest supercharging network in America with Chargepoint and Electrify America lagging behind. When charging stations are available, EV owners may have trouble finding ones that work, and up to 20 percent of them in a given area might be non-functioning, adding fuel to the fire. If your EV is your only household's sole vehicle, then things could get pretty dicey for you. It's a huge part of the reason why there's electric-back-to-gas recidivism in America.
Long Charging Times
Having tested at least 20 EVs over the past couple of years, we can attest that charging times are a pain, especially if you can't find a Level 3 fast charger. Even the quickest Level 3 fast-charging vehicles take 15 minutes to top off from approximately 30 to 80 percent. Compare that to a 20-gallon gas tank which can be filled up in two minutes. Level 2 can take several hours, and to hell with charging your EV on a measly 110V DC house outlet, which can take more than 50 hours to charge from. That means you can't drive it for two days if you want the peace of mind of a full charge.
They're Not Totally Good For the Earth
Anyone who thinks EVs will save the environment is dead wrong. Building batteries, as well as producing the electricity to charge them, has far greater environmental impact than most folks realize. EVs are certainly less harmful to the environment from an emissions standpoint since there's no exhaust like the byproduct of fossil fuels. But lithium EV battery manufacturing requires a significant amount of water to mine lithium, cobalt, manganese, and nickel. Those are all required for batteries. Then there's the coal-heavy electrical grids in many parts of the country that provide the electricity for charging stations. Last but no least, battery recydling for these millions of EVs on the road is labor-intensive and costs quite a bit of money. If they don't get recycled, they leach back into the environment.
What's So Great About Hydrogen?
Nobody hears about hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) much at all anymore, and that's a crying shame. A huge part of the problem was the fact that the refueling infrastructure was pretty much all in California. It cost a lot of money to build them, and their expansion pretty much never happened at the consumer level. EVs were promoted as being the more efficient alternative to gas with less energy loss. But hydrogen power was superb in so many ways.
The Honda FCX Clarity bowed in California in 2008. It was the first commercially available FCV meant for mass production (even though numbers were pretty low). There are currently a mere two models in the consumer FCV market today: the Toyota Mirai and the Hyundai Nexo, and they too are only for sale in California. Despite their low sales numbers (think just a few thousand a year), hydrogen FCVs are remarkably appealing to the point where they should've had a better shot against EVs than they did over the past ten years.
Look, Ma! No Charging!
On-board hydrogen fuel cells create electricity that powers an electric motor, thereby obviating the need for charging of any kind. Refueling time is virtually the same as gas, so there's very little wait time. You will never need a charging station in your home, something that's practically a requirement today if you want to own an EV. If you live in a crowded urban area, and you don't have a garage for a charging station, an FCV would be the answer to your problems. In addition to that, there is no power grid needed and, therefore, no coal to burn to provide the electricity. Sure, you'd still need to find a refueling station, assuming an infrastructure would be built outside of the West Coast. But given that, refueling is just like liquid gasoline, making it more familiar to gas car owners who might still be reluctant to switch to an electric car.
Hydrogen cars generally have longer driving ranges than most EVs on the market. Many EVs still get sub-300-mile ranges, but hydrogen cars get about 350 to 400+ miles on a full tank. The Hyundai Nexo gets 380 miles of range, and the Mirai delivers 408 miles of range. Along with brief refueling times, FCVs make long-range driving trips a reality. A Wall Street Journal writer did some real-world EV testing. He had to double her road trip time because she was driving an EV, which required her to hunt for a working charging station and sit there for hours to charge up the EV. There's no such problem with hydrogen because it pretty much works like conventional gasoline when it comes to refueling.
Minimal Environmental Impact
Studies have shown that hydrogen is, overall, more environmentally friendly than electricity + battery production. Hydrogen is a naturally-occurring gas in the earth's atmosphere, and it just so happens that is also the most abundant element. Hydrogen is clearly readily available, and it's also remarkably efficient compared to gas, although slightly less than electricity. There are no emissions because the only byproduct is water vapor, which dissipates harmlessly into the air. Again, there are no batteries required to propel an FCV, hence essentially no carbon footprint unlike battery manufacturing needed for EVs.
In the end, it's unlikely that we'll get our way because FCVs will likely never really take off, despite the fact that there will be some growth, mostly in the commercial trucking industry because of the fuel's long-range advantages and short refueling time. The push for EVs is virtually unstoppable, as you can well see by the sheer ubiquity of them in urban areas. On top of that, gas models will be replaced by new electric models by almost every mainstream automaker in the coming decade. We would love to see hydrogen as the choice to replace ICE, but that is likely not to be the case.